I don’t know why this annoys me. Maybe it’s because after banging through so many other New52 DC collections, I simply expected the book with Angry Aquaman stabbing at the reader to be as bad as one would assume. Aquaman isn’t a character DESIGNED to snarl and frown – he’s a blond swimmy guy who rides seahorses, talks to fish and wears bright orange! – and yet that’s been his default mode for basically the last 30 years. (Unless you go elsewhere.)
Then there’s Johns. I’m not a big Johns fan – the “Johnsian Literalism” theory put in play at Comics Alliance bugs me, and his weird insistence that every DC character have mother or father issues is disconcerting in its consistency. And here it is on display again: the opening arc focuses quite a bit on Aquaman’s relationship with his human father, as it guides the hero through his newfound, “Am I man or Atlantean?” issues.
This is probably a way of making them more “human,” but it usually feels like a hamfisted retcon that gives guys like Green Lantern and Flash something to brood over without feeling particularly intrinsic to their characters.
But damned if it doesn’t work with Aquaman. In fact, practically everything Johns comes up with for this not-quite-reboot* of the character is pretty spot-on.
Which, of course, makes That One Thing stand out even more as being a fucking terrible idea.
But we’ll save that for last, because I’m happy to actually write a positive DC review for a change, so let’s go down the list of things that go right in Aquaman Vol. 1: The Trench.
- Aquaman goes on an adventure involving sea monsters.
- Aquaman is a quiet, contemplative guy, but not necessarily broody (and certainly not the angry, violent dude featured on the covers).
- Mera remains as the kickass spouse, the Big Barda to Aquaman’s Mr. Miracle, and that’s both great in terms of introducing more strong female characters to DC AND as a narrative convenience of giving Aquaman someone a trusted confidante to share dialogue with.
- The flashbacks to Aquaman’s past as Arthur Curry, son of a sailor and lighthouse keeper, actually work, since the idea that Arthur’s dad was a human who fell in love with an Atlantean has always been an essential part of his backstory – but one that hasn’t really been explored much before. PLENTY of time has been given over to the history of Atlantis (especially once Peter David decided to claim that Arthur’s dad was actually an Atlantean wizard, part of his otherwise solid efforts to fully turn Aquaman from a superhero into a fantasy character), but very little has been said of the guy who (in most continuities) raised him. And that dude seems like a nice guy, based on the initial flashbacks.
- There are some hints at more backstory to come, including a marine biologist colleague of his father’s whose ambition to learn about Atlantis trumped his interest in helping young Arthur learn his powers, and the idea that the trident Aquaman is so happy to shove into monsters doesn’t belong to him – intriguing enough story nuggets left to develop in the next volume.
- The initial story is 4 issues long, which is exactly as long as it needs to be (technically, issue 1 acts as a prologue while establishing the hero’s status quo), with a fifth issue that explores an interesting, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to a guy dependent on water” one-off story that I’m surprised Mark Waid didn’t come up with.
- Johns doesn’t try to set up an Epic Arch Villain in the initial opening – there’s no Sinestro or Reverse-Flash that’s built up to ridiculous levels just to give the hero his own Joker. There’s plenty of time for Ocean Master or Black Manta down the line, and Johns seems to recognize the opener needs to make Aquaman formidable more than it needs to give him a nemesis.
Somewhat amazingly, what this list proves is that Geoff Johns is able to curb his worst tendencies and produce a re-introduction to a character that’s not continuity-heavy, retcon-laden, or thuddingly symbolic about What Aquaman’s About. It was a good read.
Which is why I hate Johns’ wrong move so much more. He was SO CLOSE!
But then he had to go and make it so that everyone in the DC Universe thinks of Aquaman the same as everyone in the Real World does. When he wanders into a seafood restaurant for lunch, he’s scolded by patrons for ordering fish, and then ambush-interviewed by a blogger who asks “What’s it like being nobody’s favorite hero?”
And when he tries to help the cops with the Case of the Monster Fish Men Who Kidnap People To Eat Them, the cops – I swear – patronize him, “You gave it a really strong effort and I appreciate that. We all do….I’ll make sure to tell the reporters you helped us out, okay? We’ll put you in a good light, for once.”
This verbal pat on the head is right after Aquaman saved everyone from being eaten by fish monsters.
This is also, presumably, five years after the entire country applauded him along with the Justice League, proclaiming them “The World’s Greatest Superhumans!” in the Justice League comic ALSO written by Johns.
But the real problem – other than that apparently a guy who fights sea-monsters, is basically bullet-proof and can breathe underwater is just not that big a deal to the hyper-jaded residents of the DC universe – is how Aquaman takes it.
He irritably explains that he doesn’t TALK to fish, because that would be silly, their brains are too small, he just commands them telepathically – but, y’know, dolphins are a different story, duuuh, but when the blogger reaches maximum dickishness, he leaves the restaurant in a huff.
Same thing when the cop talks down to him. Instead of standing up for himself and saying, “You know you guys would have all been eaten by those fish-monsters if not for my wife and me, right?” he glares at the guy and leaps away (again, kind of in a huff).
As much as I hate to admit it, it would be an interesting character flaw if he actually DID take that personally, but every time he just huffs about it not bothering him. It would be GREAT for a perfectly confident adventurer to have that one little bit of ego that KNOWS he shouldn’t engage the jerks, just can’t help it. It would humanize him more than the memory of a dead dad ever could.
But instead, “Huhuhuh Aquaman’s dumm huh huh” is treated as a running gag the hero of the book stoically powers through, and it feels like a really lousy meta-joke that won’t go away.
So in the end, I enjoyed it, I look forward to the next volume, and I swear, if I open up the next book and find out Johns has found a way to write a scene where Aquaman dances in a pasture I Am Just Done.
*A Brief Word About Continuity:
Once again – like Frankenstein, Batman, Animal Man, Green Lantern, Demon Knights and Wonder Woman – Aquaman is essentially a continuity-light affair, but other than the minor status quo shift of DC civilians not believing Atlantis is a real place (which, I suppose if you didn’t watch the news that time Peter David’s Aquaman raised an Atlantean city to the surface in the 90’s, sure), this book could easily have premiered pre-New52 reboot.
This isn’t surprising – in his Brightest Day maxi-series, Johns worked really hard to set up new, clean-slate story engines for Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Swamp Thing, Firestorm and more. The reboot left the others to the fates and multiple writers, but I suppose Johns already had his Aquaman ongoing series pitch already prepped and ready to go.
Which again enforces my belief that DC’s reboot was a hastily-made and poorly considered idea that wrecked more properties than it saved in the name of adding a few thousand short-term readers to the pile, and that’s a damn shame.